DADE CITY — Any sounds of modern life were drowned out by thumping drums, men chanting American Indian songs and the buzzing of a forest full of insects.
Mittie Wood, clad in traditional Muscogee Creek tribe regalia, asked a group of 20 first- and second-graders if they wanted to hear a story Friday.
"Yes," they cried out.
Wood, 64, grinned and stomped her moccasins.
"These stories were passed down to me by my mother from her mother, from her mother," she said.
It was the first day of the Mother's Day Native American Pow Wow, and the students sitting in front of Wood were on a field trip from Centennial Elementary to take part in the event.
Wood helped found the Pow Wow 17 years ago to teach her culture's ways and honor her mother, LeEstes Keiser Hamm.
Because she was the matriarch of the family, everyone called Hamm ''Big Ma.''
Wood told the children the story of a boy sent to the mountain to receive the visions — that's what her tribe calls dreams — necessary for his transition into manhood.
She still has visions of Big Ma, who died in 2001.
Usually, it's her green bonnet bouncing across the yard as Big Ma walked from her mobile home on Wood's Lacoochee property to the main house.
This is the first year Wood has returned to run the three-day powwow since Big Ma died.
It's tradition in the Muscogee Creek culture to cut one's hair and grieve for four years after the death of a mother, she said. When Big Ma died, Wood clipped off her two feet of braids and stayed at home, mourning. After her four years were up, she still wasn't ready to run the powwow again.
In her absence, others took over the duties of finding dancers, drummers and vendors who sell American Indian crafts. Wood helped where she could.
"I was involved, but it was someone else's powwow," she said.
Now, it's hers again.
As she told her story to the children, the yellow gauze of her cape floated around her arms.
While the boy was on the mountain, she said, he picked up a snake, even though his parents had warned him snakes were poisonous. It bit him.
All Wood's stories have a lesson.
"What have you been told to say no to?" she asked the children.
They looked at her in silence. Their feet did not reach the ground below the wooden benches on which they sat.
"Say no to drugs," Wood said. "Say no to alcohol."
Wood started drinking when she was 15. By 16, she was an alcoholic.
Big Ma wanted her to stop drinking. Eighteen years ago, she finally gave in to her mom's wishes and quit. Big Ma told her daughter that she could finally trust her again.
Wood immersed herself in the customs of her ancestors. It was healing.
"It kept me sane," she said.
Big Ma was touched when Wood started the powwow in her honor, but she did not want any type of special ceremony at the event.
Wood doesn't like attention, either. When people praise her for the powwow, she is quick to mention all the friends and family members who helped her organize it. She doesn't hang up the plaques and awards she receives each year; she keeps them tucked away in a box at her home.
Friday, after she told the children her stories, Wood stood under the same small oak tree where Big Ma used to sit and watch the dancers. In the days before the powwow, she could feel her mom cheering her on.
"I know she's here," Wood said.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 521-6518.